June 8th is World Oceans Day, and it just so happens that I have just (finally) finished reading the fifth in the Roman Mysteries series of middle grade books, which has a particularly watery theme! Of course, technically, the book is set in the Mediterranean Sea, not the Ocean (Oceanus, the personified Ocean, was the great river/sea that surrounded the whole world in Greco-Roman geography, and it lay out beyond the Pillars of Heracles, i.e. the Straits of Gibraltar) but with its themes of sponge-diving and swimming with dolphins, it seems a very appropriate book to put forward for Here, There and Everywhere's annual Oceanic Blog-a-Thon.
I've never swum with dolphins, but it always looks like fun, and I've heard it can be a quite moving experience. It certainly comes across that way here. The Dolphins of Laurentum explores Lupus' tragic and violent back-story. It's a dark book (I've read books about children wanting to commit murder before, but usually books aimed at adults, like the Song of Ice and Fire series or perhaps some of Thomas Hardy's particularly miserable tomes). However, the darkness and violence of the back-story (kept at a safe distance from the child reader by being mostly contained in flashbacks) is balanced by the beautiful sequences featuring the dolphins. The four children's starlit swim with four friendly dolphins is utterly magical and throughout the book, it is the dolphins that bring all of them, and Lupus in particular, a sense of peace that they cannot find in the human world. I have no idea how accurate a description of swimming with dolphins this is, but it certainly made me want to try it!
Lupus was trained in sponge-diving by his father, and the book also describes the process of free diving in detail, as Lupus makes increasingly desperate attempts to retrieve a sunken treasure. The book includes a warning not to try free diving at home at the beginning, and describes the consequences of free diving gone wrong in not unduly graphic, but also not too sugar-coated, detail. (For some reason I've always found the idea of the bends horrifying - possibly because I associate it with then being stuck in a tiny decompression chamber for hours - plus this particular problem also involves swelling eyes, bleeding from all over the place - ew!). Having said that, the exploration of free-diving techniques is fascinating and it's a wonderfully historically appropriate special skill for Lupus to have - plus, it produces exciting action sequences involving a giant octopus, and that's always fun.
One aspect of Lupus' back-story that I particularly enjoyed was a gender-inverted re-imagining of the story of Cupid and Psyche. In his last novel, Till We Have Faces (which I will blog someday when I actually finish reading it), CS Lewis re-told the myth of Cupid and Psyche, focusing on Psyche's 'ugly' sister Orual, and explored the psychology of an 'ugly' woman's relationship with, and jealousy of, her beautiful sister, who is sacrificed by the mob but ends up married to Love himself, a marriage which Orual tears apart. Here, it is an 'ugly' man who tears apart the lives of his handsome brother and beautiful sister-in-law, with masculine jealousy shown being just as destructive as the feminine variety. The most effective moment of all comes when Lupus realises that he has allowed his hate to turn himself into his 'ugly' uncle - it is finding inner peace and letting go of this hate that will allow him to follow in his father's footsteps rather than his uncle's, more than any superficial similiarity.
As ever in this series, there are some lovely light touches in this book. There's a nice nod to Citizen Kane towards the end, and I sensed a hint of Pride and Prejudice in Miriam's story (can one be attracted to a man and his house?!). There's also a fun scene that takes place on a sort of Roman tennis court, or perhaps more accurately, a squash court. We don't really know much for sure about Roman ball games, because most of the evidence is visual, but we do know that they definitely played them - you can see a number of images of different types of Roman ball game here (my favourite is the one that looks a bit like hockey). There's also a mosaic from Pompeii showing what looks like a football. The Romans were certainly keen on ball games, and might have played all sorts of games similar to modern ball games, so it's quite a fun idea to imagine them playing something so recognisable!
The events of this book are kicked off by the discovery of a disaster at sea (poor Marcus Geminus really does get the fuzzy end of the lollipop sometimes) and some of the sub-plots explore the ongoing geological disturbances following the eruption of Vesuvius, both on land and out at sea. Most of the story is set at Pliny the Younger's Laurentine villa (a place we know of from the literature, though we don't know exactly where it was) and much of it takes place on the beach or in boats so it's perfect for readers like me who love the sea, the beach and, as Ratty put it (or was it Mole?) 'messing about on boats.' All the sailing-fun of Swallows and Amazons, but a heck of a lot more actual danger, courtesy of earthquakes, octopi and treasure-hunters! Great stuff.
All Roman Mysteries reviews